Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
School districts across North Dakota have been dealing with teacher shortages for several years. And, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board (ESPB) declared all areas (all academic areas needing a license) as having a shortage. The preliminary results for the 2021-2022 school year show the trend continuing, and even worsening, in some areas.
Some of the reasons for shortages include enrollment growth, retirements, teachers entering other professions instead of teaching in rural districts, and fewer young people entering the profession. More recently, stress from COVID-19 and school safety have also been factors.
The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction formed the Educator Recruitment and Retention Task Force in 2015 to find solutions. One answer was to help teachers with student loan payback. The 2017 legislature passed Senate Bill 2037, which makes teachers who teach in geographical areas identified as having shortages, and in grade levels and content areas that have a declared teacher shortage, eligible for student loan forgiveness.
There is no single solution for every school, but the North Dakota Personalized Competency-Based Learning initiative (ND PCBL) could be another remedy. The Northern Cass School District, which participates in ND PCBL, is located in a rural setting between Fargo and Grand Forks and regularly attracts quite a number of applicants.
“Northern Cass has been fortunate to attract high-quality applicants for its open positions since it committed to personalized competency-based learning,” said Dr. Cory Steiner, Northern Cass School District superintendent. “As recently as two years ago, we had over 50 applicants for an open position. When we conduct interviews, we ask applicants what they know about Northern Cass. A typical response is, ‘We know you do education differently and I want to be a part of that. It is so exciting to me.’ This has helped us attract applicants in a majority of our positions which allow us to choose an educator who will be the right fit and demonstrates the competencies of adaptability, accountability, communication, leadership, and a learner’s mindset.”
Another solution has been to bring in teachers that may not have the true, full credentials that a teaching job ordinarily requires. The North Dakota legislature started allowing this when they saw that some communities were growing faster than they could hire teachers.
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, said there are many factors in attracting and retaining teachers. “It’s important to look at how teachers are recruited into the profession, how they are supported once they are there, and of course – compensation,” he said. “Schools should also go out of their way to make learning mean something to the students, show them they can use their education to solve real world problems. Students have to see school as a place they want to be. The result will be that both teachers and students will become even more creative and more enthused about the work they do. That in and of itself will help to recruit and retain the very best to teach in North Dakota.”
Support, especially during the first year of teaching, seems to play a big factor in teacher retention. Dr. Ellie Shockley, an educational data warehouse specialist for North Dakota University System, recently shared some survey research. The most commonly-mentioned issue was the management of students’ behavior. Since this is not something that can be learned from a textbook or lecture, having the benefit of support from administration and veteran teachers can be a big upsell for a school when looking to fill positions.
One teacher who echoed the importance of support is Nick Hornbacher, who has taught English and journalism for five years at Legacy High School in Bismarck.
“Our administrators have created a culture where we are trusted as professionals,” he said. “We don’t have traditional teacher lounges; we are able to collaborate with every teacher and talk about how students are doing in other subjects. The relationships I have formed with the teachers, administration, and students is important to me because teaching is relationship-based.”
The good news? Teaching is a very attractive profession for a lot of people. Maybe those that are in it and love it can be used as recruiters to encourage more young people to declare education majors after high school.
One of those ‘recruiters’ could be Janean Johnson, an instructional coach of reading and math for Mandan Public Schools. She taught for 33 years and retired to take care of aging parents. However, because of her incredible passion for teaching, she returned to education and loves her current position.
“I truly feel you never outgrow your ability to make a difference in the life of a child,” said Johnson. “Having the daily contact with amazing students and staff keeps my mind, heart, and spirit incredibly grateful and fulfilled. I am honored to still be a part of it all.”
Hornbacher, who was drawn to teaching partly because his parents and a grandparent are teachers and also because he had teachers who encouraged it, said that teaching is tough, but it is worth it.
“I would tell anyone considering going into teaching that it is a job that keeps me on my toes and every day is different,” he explained. “It is not the easiest profession, but it is very rewarding.”